Can You Emotionally Prepare for Something? The Merlin Works Newsletter October 2021

Eighteen-plus months in to the pandemic and I still get that feeling of shock when I tune in to NPR first thing in the morning and hear a newscaster say something like “today marks 700,000 people dead from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.” I feel like I’m in the beginning of a post-apocalyptic movie. How could this be actual life? How could my children be wearing masks all day, their third school year touched by this virus? It’s completely bonkers, makes no sense, and is entirely impossible. For a moment. And then I quickly re-tell myself the story of how we got here and how it is totally real and has been for a while and will be for much longer. 

We’ve all heard of the five stages of grief: shock, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance. I always thought shock was something that happened in the hours or possibly days after a tragedy. Like shock was some sort of paralysis or mental error that kept you in a suspended state until you could safely take in the bad news. But what I learned from my own experiences of grief is that shock, like all the other stages of grief, is something that comes and goes for years. It’s a state of disbelief. The feeling that whatever has happened is unacceptable. And often completely ridiculous and absurd.

Could I or anyone have done something to emotionally prepare for this year? I don’t think so. Do the people who have been preparing emotionally and practically for this level of disaster their whole lives–epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist–sleep any better at night? I’m guessing they probably sleep worse. 

In fact, I’m not convinced that you can emotionally prepare for something. Specifically, I don’t believe that ruminating over potential negative outcomes puts you in any better shape when something awful happens. Life is improvised. Rehearsing disasters doesn’t help. I know from experience. I’ve had that dreaded phone call and that fateful doctors visit. And people who have experienced these kinds of things will tell you–the big tragedies of life cannot be prepared for. Although something very bad is certain to happen to you if you live long enough, these crises can never truly be anticipated or received with ease. Sorry, there’s no skipping the line on these things. The only way out is through. 

Furthermore, I think this kind of catastrophizing robs people of joy in all the moments when something bad isn’t actually happening to them. I’m not talking about having low expectations, which leave you frequently and happily surprised when a meal tastes good or the person at the front desk was friendly or traffic is light. I’m talking about the age-old domain of Jewish mothers (again, me), during moments of joy, mentally going through worst case scenarios and outcomes to prepare your heart for their eventuality. 

But the research says the opposite. In a study out of The University of California Riverside, Dr. Kate Sweeny “asked participants to write down their worries over a two week period and predict what would happen. In fact 85% of the actual outcomes were positive. Things almost always turn out better than you think. Also, 79% of the time worries coped with different negative outcomes better than they expected they would.”

 

So why do we worry so much? For some it can be a source of motivation to take positive action. If you worry about skin cancer, you might put on sunblock every day. Or if you worry about the power going out, you might have your emergency kit assembled. (I should get on that…eventually)

But if so much of our worries are inaccurate, why do we do it?

Partly, like much of anxiety, I think it’s the result of an over-inflated ego. That you think you can predict what will happen. That you think you can prepare for it. That you know how you will respond. That if you are smart enough and think hard enough it won’t happen. I don’t think any of that is true. I think you just have to take it as it comes. It’s an attempt to protect yourself by intellectualize something that is often more emotional and physical.

As usual Brené Brown has a clear concise explanation: 

“When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. We find that no emotion is more terrifying than joy because we believe if we allow ourselves to feel joy, we are inviting disaster. We start dress rehearsing tragedy in the best moments of our lives in order to stop vulnerability from beating us to the punch. We will not be blindsided, so we practice tragedy and trauma. In the process, we squander the joy that we need to build resilience, strength, and courage.”
Now, as a counterpoint, I do think there are things you can do to emotionally prepare yourself for tragedy. But I think it has nothing to do with worst-case-scenario thinking or rehearsal. It has much more to do with how you might prepare for an improv show. As an improviser and someone who has had some real gut-wrenching-worst-day-of-my-life kinds of things happen, off the top of my head, I would recommend:

Number one, above all, gather a diverse group of supportive people in your life, who you can come to with different kinds of issues and who can offer different kinds of support. You don’t know what you will need in terms of information or resources or assistance, so it’s best to have some people around who can help you figure it out when the time comes. For example, a dear friend who you can call long distance and they can talk for hours about your latest love life drama, like Aden Nepom. Or a playmate who lives nearby and knows how to take you out on the town for drinks and karaoke to cheer you up, like Cynthia Oelkers. Or someone who knows you so well, loves you so much, and is so smart they can tell you the truth and help you understand (and love) yourself better, like Lauren Buck. Or someone you can just call crying and they will sit there and listen and help you breathe, like my sisters Hilary Merlin and Mia Merlin. Or, the kind of buddy who will come sit on the floor of your closet and help you fold clothes and pack before the saddest plane ride of your life. I’m looking at you, Amy Averett. 

Practice resilience. Practice bouncing back from smaller setbacks and strengthen those recovery habits. Try things and suck at them and be okay with it and try again and suck less. Improv is a great tool for that and classes start October 11, 2021.

Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself, just like you would to a good friend who is going through something. Forgive yourself. Give yourself a break. 

Practice optimism. Look for the good. Find the silver lining. Be grateful when possible.

Laugh. Laugh at yourself and at life. It’s real Nutter Butter. 

Take care of your body. Eat nourishing foods. Exercise in a way that feels joyful. Sleep as much as you need. 

Tell stories. Listen to stories. This is a big part of recovery. Have a few of your own personal come back stories in your back pocket for when you need them. 

I think a lot of the process of grief and loss is simply telling yourself (and others who will listen kindly) the story of what happened over and over. When something awful happens it can be so surreal. And the journey across those five stages of grief is one of storytelling. Telling your story. Letting your story change. Questioning your story. Telling your story so much that you are tired of it, that you start to accept it. (FYI Paul Normandin our Dean and Storytelling teacher can help you get that story stuck inside of you out! He did for me.)

I’m guessing these things will help emotionally prepare you for a tragedy better than rehearsing said tragedy in your head over and over. And actually these are just things that are part of living well. They are their own reward, apart from any benefit during times of loss. And really, probably one of the few ways to make losses sting less is to love less. And I don’t recommend that. 

So I think a lot of how I would prepare for tragedy is similar to how I encourage people to prepare for public speaking. Yes, study the text. But more than that, get your mind and body ready to roll with whatever happens, which is always something unexpected. 

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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